Sam Roberts was on campus last week to help kick off the school year at the U of C and the Gauntlet had a chance to speak with him briefly before he was whisked away for a sound check. The soft-spoken, Canadian-born rocker gave us his insights on everything from life on the road to following your dreams.
Gauntlet: Being on the road all the time, away from your home and family has to be tough. How do you stay based in reality while living the dream?
Sam Roberts: The guys in the band become your family and they're really important in helping me stay grounded with reality.
G: Which city has left the biggest impression on you?
SR: St. John's, Newfoundland. They're a small city that doesn't get big acts very often, so when they come everyone shows up and gives their support. Music is so ingrained in their culture and they really show it.
G: Do you remember the first time you seriously decided that you wanted to be a musician and were going to make a real attempt at it?
SR: I said it a lot when I was a kid, when I was a 12-year-old guy picking up a guitar and saying, 'look this is what I want to do.' It was harder to say that when I was finished school, working a job, paying my rent, as miserable as anyone else who does a job they don't love doing and spends more time doing that than what they actually want to be doing. Playing music always seemed like a pipe dream, but we remained so intensely focused on making it happen. After I had graduated from school, it was another five years before anyone gave us any attention. Those were the hardest but most important years of my career.
G: What is the most difficult thing about persuing music?
SR: Well, I think statistically it's not very likely, you know. It seems like it's stacked against you. You face a lot of pressure from other people because of that idea, that making a life for yourself in music is not realistic. And that becomes a word that bothers you more than anything else. That it's just a dream, it's not actually something that will bring any tangible benefits to your life. Of course, you have to reject that notion with every fiber of your being if you're actually going to make it and make that unrealistic thing real.
G: What advice can you offer to anyone who would consider following in your footsteps?
SR: You really do have to have an incredible amount of discipline and perseverance to make that happen. It's so easy to fall into some of the traps out there, traps in the form of-I don't know-working a job because you think your life needs something like material possessions for example, and not realizing at the time that you've strayed from the path that you're supposed to follow and reconnecting with the things that are important to you.
G: What was the worst job you've ever had?
SR: I worked in a bleach factory.
G: What was your favourite job outside of music?
SR: I was a furniture delivery guy for two years. It was basically my best friend and I driving around in a van delivering furniture. The bosses were out of town so we always convinced them the distances we had to travel were far greater, then we'd pack golf clubs in the back and go to the driving range.
G: You were on the Quebec indie scene for several years before you got signed to Universal Records. Did you write most of your current material during that time frame or are you in a constant process of writing?
SR: I did that for like 10, 12 years so that represents most of my career. The first record was very much [written in] that time leading up to getting signed to a record deal.
G: Can you think of one instance that really pressed you to reject the whole notion that a career in music is unrealistic?
SR: I went back to university and thought there was one other thing I'd like to do with my life. I have a degree in English literature so I was like, 'what am I qualified to do?' It didn't feel like a whole lot, but I was like, 'I could become an English teacher, I'd really like to do that.' So I went to the education department to pick up the course manual to go back to school. I remember the buzz of the lights and the drone of the professor in a class room and I walked right out of there. I had put the book down, I didn't even take it with me. I felt like I had come to a crossroads and from that point on, I felt like I had a renewed sense of dedication. Still, it was a number of years after that, but I never doubted what I wanted to do again. G: Do you remember the first time you heard your first song, "Brother Down," on the radio?
SR: Kingston, Ontario, on the 401 [highway], driving down to a gig in Toronto. It was a shocking experience, I almost lost control of the vehicle. I was sitting there and after all the work you've put into it-and again the unlikely possibility of it actually happening. It was one of those feelings, where you almost feel like you're in that perfect place. If it all went away, it'd be all right.
G: Where did the title of your EP The Inhuman Condition come from?
SR: That's something for you to debate, if you choose to. I try not to interpret these things or give them a definition. That's the oldest cop-out in the book, but I stand by it. That to me is the whole point of making records-giving them titles, putting artwork on them, writing songs that mean something-they mean something different to everybody.
G: Do you write your songs alone, or with your band?
SR: It's still a pretty solitary practice at this point. I sort of lock myself away in a little room at the back of my apartment. I think in complete songs, I don't really think in terms of, 'well I'll take this idea and plant it in the band's field and see if it grows into something else,' but that process is changing a little bit more with every record. The first record was very much all my own and then, [on] Chemical City I wrote the songs and then the band was very present in the actual recording. Every idea gets changed and reshaped by the way they play and the way they interpret the music. I was more open to that [kind of process] that time around. We're making a record right now in Montreal and that process has gone a step further.
G: When can we expect that record out?
SR: Early next year.